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Ellison's Invisible Man is told in retrospect. As the narrator declares, "the end is in the beginning." In order to determine his perception of himself at the end of the novel, it is necessary to read the Prologue. In the Prologue, we learn that the Invisible Man has withdrawn completely from society, that he literally lives in a hole in the ground. He declares that before he was ignorant, living in darkness, but now he sees that he is indeed invisible to society. No one really sees him for who he truly is. He has no identity; he is not part of a group, he will not be defined by anyone else. The end of the novel picks up again with the Invisible Man contemplating his "hibernation" and realizing that is is time to emerge.
I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
He is going to make himself heard. Even an invisible man has a voice, he realizes.
The novel itself concerns the Invisible Man's journey to find his identity. As he moves from place to place and connects with various groups, he learns that he cannot be defined by his membership within a group. In other words, he learns what he is not, and he learns that others do not see him as he is.
In the Battle Royal, for instance, he is seen as a poor black boy whose only purpose is to amuse the white establishment through painful humiliation. He has no better success at the state college for Negroes where he received a scholarship, his employment at the Liberty Paint factory, or his active role for the Brotherhood. He finds that in almost every instance, he is only being manipulated or used, like a dancing Sambo puppet on a string. At each place, in each group, the Invisible has an epiphany that enables him to move on and search for another place to belong. He fails in his search and at the end of the novel, he declares that he is fully aware of his situation:
No, I couldn't return to Mary's, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home.
He must live apart. No more will he sacrifice who he truly is in order to satisfy others, no more will he "conform to a pattern," he is now a "disembodied voice" speaking only for himself, and in speaking only for himself, he is perhaps speaking for all of mankind.
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